Turning mat men into stand-up guys
Not much attention is being paid to Ricardo Almeida and Mike Pyle heading into their welterweight showdown on Saturday night at UFC 128 in Newark, N.J. However, the winner will take a giant step toward significance in the 170-pound division.
This fight is significant for another reason, though: Because of the fighters' styles -- and the men who helped instill them -- the match could offer a preview of what fans will see at UFC 130 on May 28, when lightweight champion Frankie Edgar puts his title on the line for the second time in a row against Gray Maynard.
Like their lightweight counterparts, Almeida and Pyle are gifted ground fighters who have put in hours of work to improve their stand-up games. Perhaps not coincidentally, the men most responsible for making Almeida and Pyle comfortable on their feet are the very same who helped Edgar and Maynard take their stand-up skills to greater heights: boxing trainers Mark Henry and Gil Martinez.
Although they are familiar with each others' coaching style -- the trainers previously matched boxing wits during the first two Edgar-Maynard battles -- Henry (who trains Almeida) and Martinez (who works with Pyle) know the key to victory in Newark will be to make adjustments without moving too far from what has brought their fighters recent success.
"I make adjustments to each person that I train, because everybody is different," Martinez told ESPN.com. "I have to work with the style that each fighter has and implement a game plan for their style of fighting."
Henry also adjusts his game plan to a fighter's strengths. But that wasn't always the case.
The stand-up improvements Almeida (13-4-0) and Edgar have made are directly tied to Henry's altering his boxing training style to fit MMA fighting.
"When I'm dealing with those guys, I'm trying not to be strictly a stand-up coach anymore," Henry told ESPN.com. "I really wanted to get myself away from that.
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"I used to be so ultra-stand-up that I made them too one-dimensional. I was hurting them instead of helping them. But I've learned that Frankie and Ricardo are great athletes; I now blend all their skills."
Adjusting to their individual fighters is only part of the puzzle Henry and Martinez must solve Saturday night at Prudential Center; they must also figure out each other.
Henry might have the greater adjustment to make. Almeida's boxing style looks very much like that of Edgar. The similarity isn't lost on Martinez.
"Yes, we've noticed," Martinez said. "We've seen some of their fights, and they have similar moves that they do in their stand-up.
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"But they're totally opposite, different fighters, so we have to be ready for just Almeida [on Saturday]."
Henry says it would be a mistake to surmise that Almeida and Edgar possess the exact same stand-up style. He is quick to point out that his star pupils have shown something new inside the cage with each passing fight, although he concedes there are some similarities.
"In Ricardo's last fight, [UFC cageside commentator] Joe Rogan even said 'Ricardo is moving just like Frankie Edgar,'" Henry said.
"Sometimes they're moving a little bit alike, but they're definitely different fighters. Frankie is shorter; he has to work a different type of game. Ricardo is taller and has a long range. They have to fight different because of their body types.
"But in some ways, they are the same. They both have fast feet and quick hands. In that respect, you can say some of their style is the same."
Pyle (20-7-1) has made tremendous strides in his boxing game under Martinez, much like his teammate Maynard. In his most recent fight, a unanimous decision over John Hathaway, Pyle displayed some of the same aggressive striking Maynard exhibited in his Jan. 1 title bout with Edgar.
Martinez won't stray too far from his aggressive boxing approach, but he vows that there will be several adjustments to Pyle's stand-up game plan against Almeida. He doesn't have much choice: Martinez believes Almeida-Pyle will be decided on the feet.
"The stand-up is going to be very important, because they're both great fighters on the ground," Martinez said. "They're probably going to even themselves out as far as the ground game goes.
"Their stand-up is going to have to be on point for one of them to pull out the fight."
The same can be said of Edgar-Maynard III. Both lightweights are solid wrestlers who have become more comfortable standing.
Henry and Martinez know this better than anyone. So is Almeida-Pyle just a preview of what's to come on May 28 in Las Vegas?
"It could be," Martinez said. "We want to win, and I know their camp wants to win. I definitely look forward to the challenge and will try to figure out their game plan while executing our game plan.
"But we can't focus too much on them, because Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard are two totally different fighters than Mike Pyle and Ricardo Almeida. This is going to be an exciting fight also, but different from Edgar-Maynard III."
For his part, Almeida wants to deliver Henry a win over his Las Vegas-based counterpart. Henry, who is based in New Jersey, is 0-1-1 against Martinez thus far.
"I look forward to being a part of their essence of competition," Almeida said. "This fight will be determined by what goes on inside the Octagon as well as outside."
Franklin McNeil covers MMA and boxing for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.
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